Tense standoff at Australia asylum-seeker camp

SYDNEY — Hundreds of fearful refugees were urged to leave an Australian detention camp in Papua New Guinea on Wednesday as conditions worsened with power and water cut off in a tense standoff.

Canberra agreed to close its Manus Island facility by the end of October after the PNG Supreme Court ruled that holding people there was unconstitutional.

It was due to be handed over to local authorities on Tuesday, with some 600 men inside told to move to transition centres in the nearby town of Lorengau.

But many have locked themselves in, fearing they will not be safe outside where some in the local community do not want them.

Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report saying the Manus asylum seekers faced "unchecked violence" and that they "have been getting stabbed, beaten, and robbed" ahead of the October 31 deadline.

Staff have abandoned the camp, with electricity and water supplies cut, refugee advocates said. There have been reports of looting.

Iranian refugee Behrouz Boochani, who has lodged an affidavit in PNG’s Supreme Court trying to prevent the camp’s closure, said everyone was afraid after a restless night.

"There is not water, power and food. Even the toilets do not work," he tweeted Wednesday morning. "People gathering in stress. Any time we expect that someone attack us."

Asylum seekers who try to reach Australia by boat are sent to two remote Pacific processing centres -- PNG’s Manus Island and Nauru.

They are barred from settling in Australia, even if found to be genuine refugees.

They have the option of returning home, moving to the Nauru camp, applying to be resettled in a third country like Cambodia or the United States, or make a life for themselves in PNG.

Australian Greens senator Nick McKim was on Manus island and said the transition facilities were not ready, sparking a furious rebuke from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton who accused him of spreading false information.

McKim returned fire, slamming Dutton as "a serial human rights abuser". "I’m actually the one here on the ground," he told broadcaster ABC.

"I’m prepared to stake my political credibility anytime against the credibility of a monster like Peter Dutton."

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop urged those refusing to leave to do so, saying it made "no sense" for them to stay.

"The alternative accommodation... is providing all the essential services, including food and water and electricity and medical supplies," she told Sky News.

She added that the PNG government "was in charge of law and order and security and I understand they have this matter in hand".

PNG Immigration Minister Petrus Thomas moved to dispel fears that those refusing to leave would be removed forcibly.

"We are not going to move the refugees by force, it’s going to be a voluntary movement by refugees and non-refugees out of Manus Regional Processing Centre," he told the Post-Courier newspaper on Tuesday. —AFP

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In Belgium for ’safety’, axed Catalan leader summoned to Spain court

BRUSSELS — Spain’s top criminal court on Tuesday summoned Catalonia’s axed separatist leader for questioning, hours after he appeared in Brussels insisting he remained the "legitimate president" of a region now under direct rule from Madrid.

The National Audience in Madrid, which deals with major criminal cases, summoned Carles Puigdemont and 13 other former members of his administration, dismissed by Spain’s central government last week, to appear Thursday and Friday.

They are then set to be placed under formal investigation. On Monday, Spain’s chief prosecutor said he was seeking charges of rebellion -- punishable by up to 30 years behind bars -- sedition and misuse of public funds.

But the 54-year-old Puigdemont is in Brussels, where he surfaced after reportedly driving to Marseille in France and taking a plane to the Belgian capital.

At a packed and chaotic news conference Tuesday, Puigdemont said he was in Brussels "for safety purposes and freedom" and to "explain the Catalan problem in the institutional heart of Europe."

"We want to denounce the politicisation of the Spanish justice system, its lack of impartiality, its pursuing of ideas not crimes, and to explain to the world the Spanish state’s serious democratic deficiencies," he said.

He denied that he intended to claim asylum but said he and several other former ministers who travelled with him would return only if they have guarantees that legal proceedings would be impartial.

But two former ministers flew back to Barcelona late on Tuesday where they were greeted by a small group of demonstrators who waved Spanish flags in their faces and shouted "traitors!" and "Viva Espana!" at them.

If Puigdemont fails to appear in court as requested, Spanish prosecutors could order his arrest.

His lawyer Jaume Alonso-Cuevillas complained in a Tweet that Puigdemont had not been "given time to prepare the defence."

The National Audience also gave Puigdemont and his former ministers three days to pay a combined deposit against potential penalties of 6.2 million euros (US$7.2 million).

Uncharted territory

Puigdemont’s departure and the court’s announcement are the latest twists in the saga over semi-autonomous Catalonia’s drive for independence, which has sparked Spain’s biggest crisis in decades.

With its own language and distinct culture, Catalonia, which accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy and 16 per cent of its population, is deeply divided over independence.

On October 1, the region held an unregulated referendum -- marked by a heavy-handed operation by Spanish police -- in which a large majority voted in favour of seceding from Spain.

But Spain’s top court had ruled the plebiscite illegal, and turnout was just 43 per cent.

Puigdemont insists nonetheless the referendum gave the Catalan parliament a mandate to declare independence on Friday, a decision relayed on large screens to cheering crowds in the regional capital Barcelona.

But the reaction from Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government was swift and emphatic.

Invoking a never-used article of the constitution, Madrid dismissed Catalonia’s leaders and imposed direct rule.

On Tuesday Spain’s top court ordered the suspension of the Catalan parliament’s independence declaration.

Spain’s Civil Guard police force meanwhile searched the headquarters of Catalonia’s regional police in a probe centred on the independence referendum, a spokesman said.

Spain’s Supreme Court also summoned the former speaker of the Catalan parliament to be put under formal investigation.

’Slow down’

There had been speculation that Catalan leaders and civil servants might seek to disrupt Madrid’s imposition of direct rule but it passed off without major incident.

"We haven’t come across a single civil servant who isn’t doing his or her duty," Enric Millo, a central government representative in Catalonia, said on Tuesday.

But it appears that the crisis has converted more Catalans into independence supporters.

A regional government opinion poll carried out in October suggested more Catalans now favour independence than not.

The survey found that 48.7 per cent said they wanted a separate state against 43.6 per cent who did not.

The last such poll, conducted in July, found close to 50 per cent against secession versus 41.1 per cent in favour.

Still, a former Catalan minister, Santi Vila, told Catalan radio Rac1 on Tuesday that Puigdemont’s government had been "under the illusion" that breaking away would be easy.

Rajoy has called snap elections for December 21 to replace the Catalan parliament in a drastic bid to stop the secessionist drive.

Puigdemont said that he accepted the "challenge" and that he would "respect" the result -- while calling on Madrid to do the same if separatists retain their majority. — AFP

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South Korea will not develop nuclear weapons: president

SEOUL — South Korea will not develop atomic weapons of its own, despite the threat from the nuclear-armed North, President Moon Jae-In declared on Wednesday.

"A push by North Korea to become a nuclear state cannot be accepted or tolerated," Moon said in an address to parliament. "We also will not develop or own nuclear" arms.

In recent months Pyongyang has carried out its sixth nuclear test – its most powerful by far -- and launched missiles apparently capable of reaching much of the US mainland, raising concerns in Seoul about its security alliance with Washington.

South Korean media and opposition politicians have called for US tactical nuclear weapons, which were withdrawn from the peninsula in the 1990s, to be returned.

Some have suggested that if Washington does not agree -- Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressed doubts about the concept in a visit at the weekend -- Seoul should develop a nuclear capability of its own, in order to ensure what they dub a "balance of terror" on the peninsula.

But Moon said in his address that Seoul’s approach would be "based on the joint declaration to denuclearise the Korean peninsula declared by both Koreas" in 1992. — AFP

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EU, Japan ask UN to condemn N. Korea over rights abuses

UNITED NATIONS, United States — The European Union and Japan asked the United Nations on Tuesday to condemn North Korea for gross human rights violations, drawing a link between severe hunger endured by North Koreans and Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programmes.

After the death of US student Otto Warmbier, a draft resolution also said North Korea must provide detained foreign nationals with access to consular services and allow them to communicate with their families.

The measure was presented to the General Assembly’s human rights committee which is expected to vote on the text in the coming weeks.

North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test this year and test-fired a series of advanced missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, even as 18 million North Koreans, or 70 per cent of the population, are struggling with food shortages.

The draft resolution condemns North Korea "for diverting its resources into pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles over the welfare of its people," according to the draft text obtained by AFP.

Over half of North Korea’s population face food shortages and nearly a quarter suffer chronic malnutrition, according to UN findings cited in the proposed measure.

The draft resolution "condemns the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights" in North Korea, and said those violations have led to severe hunger and malnutrition.

It expresses "very serious concerns" that Pyongyang has carried out torture, summary executions, arbitrary detention and abductions of foreign nationals within and outside its territory.

Warmbier, a 22-year-old student, died in June just days after he was released by Pyongyang and sent home in a coma following his arrest in January 2016 while visiting the North as a tourist.

His parents have said their son showed signs of torture, including teeth that appeared to have been "rearranged," and hands and feet that were disfigured.

In February, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Nam, was killed with the poisonous nerve agent VS while waiting a crowded airport in Malaysia’s capital Kuala Lumpur.

The draft resolution recalled that all UN member-states are barred from providing work permits to North Korean nationals in line with a Security Council resolution.

It also expressed concern that reunions of separated families on the Korean peninsula have been suspended since October 2015. — AFP

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Eight dead in suspected terrorist truck attack on Manhattan bike path

Viet Nam News

NEW YORK — A man driving a rented pickup truck mowed down pedestrians and cyclists on a bike path alongside the Hudson River in New York City on Tuesday, killing eight people and injuring about a dozen others in what authorities said was an act of terrorism.

The 29-year-old suspect was shot by police in the abdomen and arrested after he crashed the truck into a school bus and fled his vehicle, authorities said.

CNN and The New York Times, each citing law enforcement sources, reported that investigators found a note left by the suspect claiming he carried out the attack in the name of the Islamic State militant group.

A US law enforcement source told Reuters the suspect was an Uzbekistan-born immigrant.

The incident marked the greatest loss of life from a suspected terrorist attack in New York since suicide hijackers crashed jetliners into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, killing more than 2,600 people.

Tuesday’s assault, on the far west side of lower Manhattan a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, was reminiscent of several deadly vehicle attacks in Europe during the past 15 months.

“This was an act of terror, and a particularly cowardly act of terror, aimed at innocent civilians, aimed at people going about their lives who had no idea what was about to hit them,” Mayor Bill de Blasio told a news conference following the attack.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security similarly called the incident an “apparent act of terrorism.”

Governor Andrew Cuomo said the suspect appeared to have acted alone.

“There’s no evidence to suggest a wider plot or a wider scheme. These are the actions of one individual meant to cause pain and harm and probably death,” Cuomo said at the news conference.

Later, asked by CNN in an interview whether the suspect had been known to authorities before the attack, Cuomo replied, “It’s too early to give you a definitive answer.”

New York City Police Commissioner James O‘Neill declined to publicly identify the driver. But a source familiar with the investigation told Reuters the driver’s name was Sayfullo Saipov.

CNN and NBC News reported that he entered the United States in 2010.


Multiple media outlets, including CNN, reported that the suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” - Arabic for “God is greatest” - when he jumped out of his truck, citing police officials.

Asked about that at the news conference, O‘Neill would only say that an unspecified comment by the suspect when he exited his truck, and the general circumstances of the assault, led investigators to label the incident a “terrorist event.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation joined the New York City Police Department and other agencies in a Joint Terrorism Task Force to conduct a probe of the attack, the FBI said in a statement.

ABC News reported that Saipov lived in Tampa, Florida. A check of court records related to a traffic citation that Saipov received in eastern Pennsylvania in 2015 show he listed addresses then in Paterson, New Jersey, and Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

According to O‘Neill, the suspect drove onto the bike path in lower Manhattan at 3:05pm. He said the man was carrying a paint-ball gun and a pellet gun.

Two children and two adults were injured when the truck plowed into the school bus, he said.

O‘Neill said the pickup truck driven by the suspect had been rented from the Home Depot hardware chain, but declined to say where it was rented.

After the attack, mangled and flattened bicycles littered the sunlit bike path, which runs parallel to the West Side Highway along the Hudson River.

Of the eight people killed, six were pronounced dead at the scene and two more were pronounced dead at a nearby hospital, O‘Neill said.

Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said 11 survivors with serious but non-life-threatening injuries were taken to hospitals.

Despite the attack, thousands of costumed Halloween revelers turned out hours later for New York City’s main Halloween parade, which went on as scheduled Tuesday night, just a few blocks from the scene of the carnage, with a heightened police presence.

US President Donald Trump was briefed on the incident, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

Trump orders stepped up ’extreme vetting’ after New York attack

Trump, who has pressed for a ban on travelers entering the United States from some predominantly Muslim countries, said on Twitter that he had ordered Homeland Security officials to “step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”

In an official White House statement later, the president said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of today’s terrorist attack in New York City and their families.” He also paid tribute to the “first responders who stopped the suspect and rendered immediate aid to the victims.”

Similar attacks in Europe last year killed dozens of people.

On July 14, 2016, a suspect drove a large truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in the French city of Nice, killing 86 people and injuring hundreds more in an attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Five months later a Tunisian asylum seeker, who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State, plowed a truck into a crowded Christmas market in central Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 48.

On August 17 of this year, a driver rammed his van into crowds in the heart of Barcelona, killing 13 people, in an attack authorities said was carried out by suspected Islamist militants. — AFP

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Somalia sacks security chiefs as attack toll hits 27

MOGADISHU — The death toll from a deadly attack on a hotel in Mogadishu rose to 27 on Sunday, prompting the Somali government to sack its police and intelligence chiefs.

The move came after Al-Qaeda aligned Shabaab gunmen staged coordinated bomb attacks Saturday outside the Nasa Hablod Hotel 2 before storming the building.

Two weeks ago, Mogadishu was hit by a massive truck bombing that killed 358 people in the troubled country’s worst-ever attack.

Saturday’s carnage was unleashed when a car bomb exploded outside the hotel entrance followed by a minibus loaded with explosives going off at a nearby intersection.

The gunmen then rushed into the popular hotel, launching a siege that lasted several hours.

"Five gunmen stormed the building, two of them were killed and the rest captured alive," security ministry spokesman Abdiasiz Ali Ibrahim told reporters.

Sporadic gunfire could be heard inside the building where the gunmen had holed up, but several people managed to escape, officials said.

Officials had initially given a toll of 14 dead, saying "most" of the casualties were civilians although a senior police official and a former MP were among them.

The Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on its Andalus radio station, saying it was a hotel where "apostate officials" were staying.

’Serious accountability’

The latest toll was given by Security Minister Mohamed Abukar Islow at a cabinet meeting at which ministers approved the dismissal of intelligence agency boss Abdillahi Mohamed Sanbalooshe and police chief Abdihakim Dahir Said.

The two were "fired for the purpose of serious accountability," said a statement, which also said police were interrogating the three captured gunmen.

The removal of the officials comes soon after the abrupt resignation of Somalia’s defence minister and army chief on October 12, both of whom quit without explanation just two days before the massive truck bombing.

Although a new army chief was named the same day, General Abdi Jama Warsame, the defence portfolio remains vacant. — AFP

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Britain defends Balfour Declaration, 100 years on

LONDON — Britain’s foreign secretary on Sunday defended his predecessor’s role a century ago in paving the way for the creation of Israel, saying two sovereign states for Israelis and Palestinians remains the "only viable solution" for peace.

This Thursday marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration -- a 67-word letter from Britain’s then foreign secretary Arthur Balfour that threw London’s backing behind a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will travel to London to mark the anniversary.

The statement remains controversial, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to Israel’s formation, the displacement of millions of Palestinians and decades of strife between the two communities that continues to this day.

"I am proud of Britain’s part in creating Israel," current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote in the Telegraph newspaper on Sunday, adding the document was "indispensable to the creation of a great nation".

But he warned that one of the key caveats of the Balfour Declaration -- that the rights of non-Jewish communities shall be protected -- "has not been fully realised".

In the article, Johnson said he was writing his thoughts down in the same room Balfour used a century ago.

He praised the 1917 letter for its "incontestable moral goal: to provide a persecuted people with a safe and secure homeland."

London, he added, remained committed to a two-state solution.

"I have no doubt that the only viable solution to the conflict resembles the one first set down on paper by another Briton, Lord Peel, in the report of the Royal Commission on Palestine in 1937, and that is the vision of two states for two peoples," he wrote.

The borders, he added, should be as they were before the Six Day war in 1967, with Jerusalem "a shared capital" and "equal land swaps to reflect the national, security, and religious interests of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples."

"A century on, Britain will give whatever support we can in order to close the ring and complete the unfinished business of the Balfour Declaration," he wrote. — AFP

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Kenya vote chief silent on rebel areas as uncertainty lingers

Viet Nam News

NAIROBI — Kenya’s election board remained silent Sunday over plans to reschedule a vote in flashpoint opposition areas, where a boycott sparked violent protests in a poll set to hand President Uhuru Kenyatta a landslide, but tarnished, win.

With the counting almost done after Thursday’s presidential re-run, the results remained on hold as officials mulled what to do about 25 constituencies in four western counties where voting was blocked.

There, supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga managed to prevent hundreds of polling stations from opening, prompting violent clashes with police which continued for several days, leaving nine dead and scores injured.

At least 49 people have died since the first presidential election of August 8, which was later overturned, prompting Kenya’s worst political crisis in a decade.

Following Odinga’s boycott, Kenyatta is almost guaranteed a crushing win.

But it was looking ever more like a Pyhrric victory with low turnout figures likely to tarnish the credibility of a vote that has deeply polarized the nation and sparked international concern about the future of east Africa’s most stable democracy.

In a televised address, election chief Wafula Chebukati gave updated figures, saying that in 251 of the 266 constituencies where voting actually took place, some 7.4 million people showed up to cast their ballots.

The figure equates to a turnout of around 43 per cent.

Including the diaspora, Kenya has a total of 291 constituencies, but the vote did not happen in 25 of them.

Although Chebukati had said he would address the question of a re-run in protest-hit western areas, he made no comment on the matter, pledging only to give a fresh update on Monday morning.

"On 8 August, the commission thought we had done the best election ever but here we are now, and I want to assure you that what we are doing here... is being done properly in a free and fair environment," he said.

"I can confidently say that I’m satisfied with this process."

’No Raila, no peace!’

Plans to restage the vote in the western regions on Saturday were quickly called off after a second day of protests over fears for the safety of polling staff.

Odinga, who earlier showed up for church in Nairobi’s protest-hit Kawangware slum, has demanded a new election within 90 days, vowing to stage a campaign of "civil disobedience".

"No Raila, no peace!" chanted the large crowd which had gathered to hear him speak, some of whom had marched over from Kibera, another of the city’s poorest districts.

"We are telling (Kenyatta)... the people of Kenya will not be ruled by the gun," he said in Swahili, to whistles and cheers. "You cannot kill people because they did not vote."

But William Ruto, Kenyatta’s deputy, ridiculed Odinga’s demand for a fresh poll.

"There will be no election in 90 days, there will be no discussion on matters to do with elections. We will have dialogue with Mr. Odinga on other matters, not matters that have been settled by people of Kenya in their supreme will in a ballot," he told Doha-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

Thursday’s presidential re-run was ordered by Kenya’s Supreme Court after it overturned Kenyatta’s August victory over "irregularities" in the transmission of votes.

 ’No winners’

"None of the questions raised by the Supreme Court’s nullification of the original vote were answered by the election," wrote Nic Cheeseman, an expert on African politics at Birmingham University in central England.

And although the official results were likely to notch up a landslide for Kenyatta, "the low turnout and the circumstances surrounding the polls means that his government has gained little."

"Given all this, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was an election in which there were no winners," Cheeseman wrote in Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper.

While the Supreme Court ruling was hailed as a chance to deepen democracy, the acrimonious bickering between Odinga and Kenyatta -- whose fathers were rivals before them -- has sharply divided a country where politics is polarized along tribal lines.

Kenya’s political crisis is the worst since a 2007 vote sparked months of politically-driven ethnic violence that left 1,100 people dead.

While the dynamics of 2017’s political crisis are very different, the memory of the bloodshed a decade ago is never far away. — AFP

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Australia’s Queensland calls election in test for populist Hanson

SYDNEY — The Australian state of Queensland, home to the Great Barrier Reef, has called a snap election that is set to test support for both the populist party of Pauline Hanson and an environmentally sensitive Indian coal mine project.

Campaigning began Monday in the state, a major tourist destination, after Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk of the Labor Party set down a poll date of November 25.

Labor won power from the Liberals in a 2015 landslide, but most opinion polls indicate it will be a closer call this time. The vote did not have to be called until May 2018.

The election is shaping as a political test of Hanson’s One Nation, which has enjoyed a tide of popular support in the state on its platform of zero-net migration and opposition to Islam.

Pundits are looking to see how the party fares in a traditional stronghold as an insight into whether it could remain a force heading into national polls due in late 2018 or early 2019.

Palaszczuk called the election on Sunday while Hanson was in India on a trade mission, giving her an extra week of campaigning without the One Nation leader around.

Hanson accused her of "cowardice", but Palaszczuk said it was a coincidence.

"I didn’t know she was going to be overseas," she said, adding that an election decision was made to give business leaders and voters certainty moving forward.

Hanson first gained prominence in the 1990s, when she warned Australia was in danger of being "swamped by Asians".

After a 12-year hiatus from politics she returned in 2014, this time targeting Muslims and was elected, along with three others from her right-wing party, to the national Senate two years later.

Coal-fired versus renewable energy is set to be a central plank of the election, centered on the huge US$16 billion Carmichael coal mine being developed by Indian giant Adani.

The project gained government approval in July, but Adani has requested a $US800 million loan guarantee to proceed, and that remains to be resolved.

Environmentalists warn the massive mine will damage the under-pressure

Great Barrier Reef and many voters are opposed.

But both Labor and the opposition Liberals say it is key to deliver thousands of new jobs.

Adani protesters ambushed an event held by Palaszczuk on Sunday and have vowed to dog her throughout the campaign.

"This election will help decide the future of the Great Barrier Reef and our climate," said Australian Conservation Foundation president Geoff Cousins.

"The dramatic impacts of climate change are already being felt right across Queensland. Now is not the time to dig the biggest coal mine Australia has ever seen."

The Adani development proposes exporting coal to India from a massive open-cut and underground coal mine 160 kilometres (100 miles) northwest of Clermont in central Queensland, home to the reef, via a 189-kilometre rail link to port. — AFP

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Speculation rife as first arrest in US Russia probe said near

Viet Nam News

WASHINGTON — Washington was abuzz over the weekend over reports that a grand jury has charged at least one person stemming from the US probe of Russia’s attempts to tilt the 2016 presidential elections in Donald Trump’s favour.

There was no indication, in reporting by CNN and other media, of who might be charged or what crimes might be alleged in the ongoing inquiry led by former FBI chief Robert Mueller.

But Trump, in a rapid burst of tweets early Sunday, again denounced the investigation as a "witch hunt" and repeated his denials of any collusion with Russia.

Mueller’s team has remained publicly mum about reports that a first arrest could come as early as Monday. He is empowered to pursue not only Russian interference but any other crimes his large team of prosecutors should uncover.

But Chris Christie, a Republican governor close to Trump, said Sunday on ABC that "the important thing about today for the American people to know is the president is not under investigation. And no one has told him that he is."

It was not clear the New Jersey governor would know whether Trump is being investigated; he may have been referring to earlier comments by former FBI chief James Comey.

But Christie told CNN that anyone who has been advised by Mueller’s office that they are a target of the inquiry "should be concerned."

’I cannot answer’

Typically, such a wide-ranging investigation would first target lower-level people while building a case against those higher up. Sometimes early indictments are used to pressure potential witnesses into turning against others.

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, demurred Sunday when asked whether Trump was under investigation. "I can’t answer that one way or the other," he said.

But he mentioned two possible targets on whom much speculation has focused: former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Trump campaign director Paul Manafort, both of them once involved in undeclared lobbying for foreign interests.

Buzzfeed reported Sunday the FBI is probing a series of wire transfers linked to Manafort that saw offshore companies move over $3 million between 2012 and 2013.

Flagged as suspicious by US financial institutions, some of the 13 transfers Buzzfeed obtained details of involved wires of large sums from Ukraine.

According to the news site, federal law enforcement was aware of such transfers as far back as 2012, when they began investigating whether Manafort committed tax fraud or helped the Ukrainian regime -- close to Vladimir Putin -- launder money.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb told the New York Times that Trump felt confident that neither Flynn nor Manafort had damaging information to offer prosecutors.

"The president has no concerns in terms of any impact, as to what happens to them, on his campaign or on the White House," Cobb said in an interview published Saturday.

Cobb also asserted Sunday that Trump’s latest tweets were "unrelated to the activities of the Special Counsel, with whom he continues to cooperate," news media reported.

As the Mueller investigation nears a dramatic new phase, Republican officials and conservative media have stepped up their attacks on Democrats, above all on Trump’s rival in last year’s election, Hillary Clinton – attacks that Democrats dismiss as blatant attempts to divert attention. — AFP

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US releases trove of Kennedy assassination files

Viet Nam News

WASHINGTON — The US government on Thursday released a mammoth, long-awaited trove of secret files on the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, but withheld others for further review on national security grounds.

In a statement the National Archives said that on orders from President Donald Trump it had released 2,891 records related to the November 22, 1963 slaying of JFK in Dallas, Texas.

Kennedy scholars have said the documents were unlikely to contain any bombshell revelations or put to rest the rampant conspiracy theories about the assassination.

The files are vast in number and scope, covering everything from FBI directors’ memos over the years to interviews with members of the public in Dallas who came forward trying to provide clues in the weeks and months after that singularly unforgettable moment in US history.

Trump said in a memorandum he had agreed to hold back for further review some records relating to the killing.

Administration officials who requested anonymity said the majority of those requests had come from the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"Executive departments and agencies have proposed to me that certain information should continue to be redacted because of national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns," Trump said.

"I have no choice – today – but to accept those redactions rather than allow potentially irreversible harm to our nation’s security," he said.

Trump gave agencies six months – until April 26, 2018 – to make their case for why the remaining documents should not be made public.

"At the end of that period, I will order the public disclosure of any information that the agencies cannot demonstrate meets the statutory standard for continued postponement of disclosure," he said.

Full and unredacted

The 2,891 records approved for release are viewable on the National Archives website, in full and unredacted form.

"The president wants to ensure that there is full transparency here," an official said, but "there does remain sensitive information in the records."

This includes, for example, the identities of informants and "activities that were conducted with the support of foreign partner organisations, either intelligence or law enforcement," the official said.

The Warren Commission which investigated the shooting of the charismatic 46-year-old president determined that it was carried out by a former Marine sharpshooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone.

That formal conclusion has done little, however, to quell speculation that a more sinister plot was behind the murder of the 35th President of the United States.

Hundreds of books and movies such as the 1991 Oliver Stone film "JFK" have fed the conspiracy industry, pointing the finger at Cold War rivals the Soviet Union or Cuba, the Mafia and even Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson.

The release of the documents is in compliance with an October 26, 1992 act of Congress which required that the assassination records held in the National Archives be released in full and unredacted 25 years later.

Kennedy assassination experts were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to look at the files but have sought to tamp down expectations.

"Anybody who thinks there’s a document in there headed ’Members of the Conspiracy to Kill President Kennedy’ is going to be waiting a long time," said Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia and the author of The Kennedy Half Century.

Gerald Posner, author of Case Closed, which determined that Oswald did indeed act alone, said people who think the files will "have the solution to the case that everybody can settle on" are going to be disappointed.

"That’s not going to happen," Posner said.

"No one’s going to abandon their belief in a conspiracy because the release of the files doesn’t prove it," he said. "They’ll just say it must have been destroyed or hidden."

Experts agree, however, that the documents may shed some light on an intriguing chapter in Oswald’s life – his trip to Mexico City about seven weeks before the slaying where he is known to have met with Cuban and Soviet spies.

Sabato said the CIA and FBI may be blocking the release of certain documents to hide their own failings.

"When you get right down to it the CIA and FBI dropped the ball," he said. "They had every indication that Oswald was a misfit and a sociopath".

But neither agency informed the Secret Service, which is charged with protecting the president, he said.

Oswald defected to the Soviet Union in 1959 but returned to the United States in 1962.

He was shot to death two days after killing Kennedy by a nightclub owner, Jack Ruby, as he was being transferred from the city jail. — AFP

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Relics picked from late Thai King’s ashes

Viet Nam News

BANGKOK — Thailand’s new king picked bits of bone and ash from his father’s remains on Friday to be enshrined as royal relics, after the cremation of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej capped an extravagant funeral that brought the nation to a standstill.

The lighting of the funeral pyre late Thursday night, which was held behind closed doors, closed the book on the 70-year reign of a monarch who was elevated to saint-like status.

The grand send-off, held a year after Bhumibol died aged 88, was a spectacular show of the enigmatic rituals that gird a powerful monarchy cloaked in myth and spirituality.

On Friday Bhumibol’s son and successor, 65-year-old King Maha Vajiralongkorn, ascended the steps of the glistening crematorium complex to select relics from his father’s ashes.

The monarch poured fragrant water on the pile of remains, before using his hands to place bits of bone into six golden, diamond-encrusted urns that will be moved in procession to the Grand Palace later Friday.

Throughout the ceremony aides skirted around the king on their knees, a requirement in a palace with rigid hierarchies.

"After the religious ceremony... all the six urns will be put into a fourth procession to go back to Dusit Maha Prasat Throne Hall and the golden stupa inside the temple of Emerald Buddha," said an official announcer describing the ceremony.

The five-day funeral, which ends on Sunday and cost some US$90 million dollars, has seized the attention of a nation where love for king Bhumibol runs deep.

Vice President Nguyễn Thị Ngọc Thịnh on behalf of the State of Việt Nam attended the royal cremation together with over 40 other royal and governmental representatives.

More than 300,000 mourners in black crammed into Bangkok’s old quarter to watch the colourful procession on Thursday that carried his funeral urn to the sprawling purpose-built crematorium.

Many wept and prostrated as the gilded urn passed. Others around the country have tuned in to televised broadcasts of the processions, monk-led rituals and traditional music and performances marking Bhumibol’s send-off to heaven.

But the funeral’s climax – the lighting of the pyre – was not broadcast live Thursday night as most media were whisked away from the area. Later in the evening smoke could be seen rising from the illuminated funeral pyre.

The passing of Bhumibol, an anchor of stability across decades of political tumult, has ushered Thailand into a new era of uncertainty.

The new monarch has yet to command the same level of devotion and his approach to the crown – and relationship with the military government – remains inscrutable. — AFP

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Russian helicopter crashes at sea in Arctic, 8 aboard: Norway

OSLO — A Russian helicopter with eight people on board crashed at sea in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic on Thursday, Norwegian rescue services said, with fears growing over the fate of those on board.

None of the eight aboard had been found six hours after the accident was reported. According to Russian media, they are all Russian nationals.

Chances of survival were fading rapidly, with air and water temperatures in the region currently around zero degrees Celsius.

Rescuers were in a "race against the clock", rescue chief Tore Hongset told Norwegian television TV2.

"Time is passing and the risk of death by hypothermia is increasing exponentially," he said.

"Until we really know what happened, the search continues as if there is a chance of finding these people alive," he added.

The aircraft went down in the afternoon two or three kilometres from Barentsburg, a Russian mining community in the archipelago, the rescue services said.

No contact had been made with the chopper before it went down or immediately after it was reported down.

Two Norwegian helicopters and several rescue vessels were dispatched to the scene.

So far, only two oil patches have been detected in the area, but it is not known if they come from the Russian helicopter, another rescue service official said.

"We’re continuing the search until we’ve cleared this up," he said.

According to Hongset the early indications, including the oil patches, suggest that the aircraft crashed into the sea. A sonar detection also found an object lying on the seabed, but this had not been identified, he added.

The water is 200 metres deep in the area and a robot submarine would be needed to investigate the sonar finding.

Five crew, three scientists

Visibility in the area was reduced because of snow and darkness, which falls early this time of year at this latitude.

The aircraft was a Russian Mil Mi-8 based permanently near Barentsburg. It was reported missing by airport authorities around 3:35pm (1335 GMT) as it was returning from Pyramiden, another former mining community that is now a tourist site.

It was confirmed to have come down about 10 minutes later, rescue services said.

Russia’s consul general in Svalbard, Viacheslav Nikolayev, told the Interfax news agency there were five crew members and three scientists on board.

"It’s a civilian helicopter that belongs to the Arktikugol company and it flies the miners between (Svalbard’s main town of) Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. It’s a regular flight," he said.

"We know the helicopter failed to return. But whether it crashed or not, I can’t say," he said.

Norway was afforded sovereignty of Svalbard, located around 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole, under the 1920 Treaty of Paris.

Nationals of all signatory states enjoy "equal liberty of access and entry" to Svalbard and its waters.

As a result, Russia operates a coal mine in Barentsburg, a community home to several hundred Russian and Ukrainian miners.

In 2008, another Mil Mi-8 crashed near Barentsburg, killing three of its nine occupants. Yet another crash near Pyramiden of the same type of helicopter left two dead in 1991. — AFP

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Nigeria triple suicide attack kills 13: security sources

Deadly attacks have dropped in recent weeks in Nigeria, which security sources attribute to renewed military offensives after the end of the rainy season in September. — AFP/VNA Photo
Viet Nam News

MAIDUGURI — Three female suicide bombers killed 13 people and wounded 16 in the northeastern city of Maiduguri on Sunday, security sources said.

The first bomber detonated her explosive belt around 9:45pm (2045 GMT) in front of a small restaurant in the capital of Borno state "when people were buying their dinner," a military source said on condition of anonymity, giving the death toll.

The two other bombers followed minutes later, resulting in the injured, an armed militia leader said, noting that the attack came "hours after reports of sighting of a lot of Boko Haram members outside the city".

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

The Boko Haram conflict has left at least 20,000 dead and forced more than 2.6 million others to flee their homes since 2009.

Roads to and from Maiduguri are nominally open to traffic, but in reality, vehicles require a military escort because of the risk of attack.

Nigeria’s military and government maintain that Boko Haram is a spent force as a result of sustained counterinsurgency operations against the militants since early 2015.

Deadly attacks have dropped in recent weeks, which security sources attribute to renewed military offensives after the end of the rainy season in September. — AFP

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Police arrest suspect in double shooting that killed three

WASHINGTON — Police arrested a man suspected of killing three people and wounding two on Wednesday at a Maryland business park before shooting another person in neighbouring Delaware.

Radee Prince, 37, was caught as he fled on foot in Delaware after a manhunt that saw local Maryland schools in lockdown and the nearby set of Netflix drama House of Cards reportedly sealed off.

Police said the latest mass shooting to hit the United States was a "targeted attack".

"At 7:05pm (local time), a suspect was taken into police custody after a brief foot chase," Wilmington, Delaware Police Chief Robert Tracy told a televised news conference.

Prince discarded a .380 caliber firearm during the chase -- the same caliber used in the shootings, though ballistics testing still needs to be done to conclusively determine if it is the same weapon, Tracy said.

The police chief had earlier told reporters that Prince was "a dangerous individual. This person shot six people in one day", in attacks that were not random.

Prince was sought "in connection with both a multiple shooting incident early this morning in Edgewood, Maryland and another shooting incident at mid-morning today" in Wilmington, a statement from police said.

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said three people died in the first incident at a granite business just before 9:00am local time.

He confirmed a handgun was used and two other victims were transported to trauma centres in serious condition.

Gahler said Prince was associated with the company, Advanced Granite Solutions, where the first shooting occurred, near Baltimore.

Latest mass shooting

"This does appear to be a targeted attack, limited to that business," he said.

Police were investigating Prince’s connection with the firm, where all fivevictims of the first shooting were employed, Gahler said.

He said other people besides the five victims were on the premises when the shooting took place.

Tracy said the victim in the second shooting identified the gunman.

"They’re known to each other and they’ve had some past history," he told a news conference.

The suspect fled the first attack in a car registered in Delaware, Gahler said.

Variety magazine reported that the set of "House of Cards", which is partly filmed in Maryland, was placed on lockdown while police searched for the shooter.

The executive producer of the series, Dana Brunetti, said on Facebook: "Shooting near House of Cards set."

Several schools in Maryland were also placed on lockdown while the shooter was still at large, officials said.

The incident was the latest mass shooting in a country where such killings have become tragically commonplace.

On October 1, a gunman in a 32nd-floor casino hotel room rained fire down on concert-goers in Las Vegas, killing 58 and wounding more than 500.

It was the deadliest shooting in recent US history.

The Las Vegas shooting sparked efforts to ban "bump stocks", a device that allowed the firing of a semi-automatic rifle close to the rate of a fully automatic weapon.

But broader gun control measures remain staunchly opposed by Republicans, with the backing of the powerful National Rifle Association lobby. — AFP

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Energy ministers from 36 nations to convene in Bangkok

Viet Nam News

BANGKOK — Asian energy ministers from 36 exporting and consuming countries will meet in Bangkok in early November for discussions ranging from fossil fuel, gas and disruptive technology.

This round of the biennial forum is billed as one of the industry’s most important as potential energy market transition possibilities will underpin future energy security implications – a top economic agenda for most nations.

The 36 Asian ministers will be joined by 20 heads of energy-related international organisations. The Thai Energy Ministry plays host to the forum under the theme “Global Energy Markets in Transition: From Vision to Action.” The United Arab Emirates is the Bangkok forum’s co-host.

The event will take place during November 1-3 at the Shangri-la Hotel, Bangkok.

Thai Energy Minister Gen Anantaporn Kanjanarat said the meeting underpins the development of the increasingly complex and dynamic relationships between energy producers and consumers in Asia and beyond.

The ministers will divulge on visions and implications of energy markets, natural gas, renewable energy transition with advanced technology options – all of which will shape the future world’s energy markets.

This gathering will update on the energy outlook in Asia especially oil market and its impact, touching on global issues and challenges influencing the oil markets in Asia. The Thai Energy Ministry cited the example of an extensive agglomeration and closer co-operation among OPEC member countries and the recent unrest in many parts of the world that may affect the oil price. 

As for gas market, especially LNG, there will be a platform for a policy dialogue between exporting economies such as Western Asian Countries and energy importing economies such as China, Japan, Korea and ASEAN member countries. Both sides want to explore for more secure, stable and sustainable future for both oil and gas market.

The forum will also look into the spread of disruptive energy technologies from fossils to cleaner and renewable energy. Highlights are the rise of solar rooftop, electric vehicle uses and energy storage system development. The critical challenge for the industry is to ensure the momentum of technological innovation and its transformation and to speed up progress.

Anantaporn said the Thai government pursues the policy to ensure predictable, long-term support in all stages of innovation to cope with future disruptive technology. Thailand is one of a few countries in Asia with explicit disruptive technology policy.

He said also Thailand is recognised as the ASEAN leader in renewables energy and energy efficiency; plus action plans under Thailand’s Energy 4.0 policy and Integrated Energy Blueprint. — The Nation/ANN

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Florida declares emergency over white supremacist event

Viet Nam News. MIAMI - Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on Monday in northern Florida ahead of a speech by white supremacist leader Richard Spencer, who was involved in a march in August that ended in violent clashes. Spencer, a leader of the so-called "alt-right" movement, is due to give a speech on Thursday at the University of Florida in Gainesville, a town of some 130,000.

Florida declares emergency over white supremacist event

At least 20 killed in communal violence in central Nigeria

ABUJA  Nigeria’s president demanded late on Monday that police and the army "stop the madness" in central Plateau state after more than 20 people were killed in a new flare-up of violence.

Fulani herdsmen are suspected of killing at least 20 people last weekend with guns and explosives in the latest round of clashes in a long-running battle over grazing rights in central Nigeria.

"President Muhammadu Buhari has received with deep sadness and regret news of the recent killings of at least 20 people in Plateau state, during what has been described as a reprisal attack by some herdsmen," according to an official statement.

"This madness has gone too far. (Buhari) has instructed the military and the police to not only bring the violence to an instant end, but to draw up a plan to ensure that there are no further attacks and reprisal attacks by one group against the other," the statement added.

Nomadic Muslim Fulani herdsmen allegedly launched a series of attacks against Christian farmers, defying a curfew put in late Friday by the state’s governor after a rise in tensions between the two communities.

"Some unknown group attacked some villages in Barikin Ladi early on Saturday and killed a lot of people," according to the spokesperson of the Special Task Force in the state, Salisu Mustapha.

"The attackers came in large group and for the first time not only shot their victims but also used explosives," he added.

Plateau state falls on the dividing line between Nigeria’s mainly Christian south and mostly Muslim north and has witnessed sporadic ethnic and religious tensions for decades. — AFP

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Spain cuts growth forecast to 2.3 per cent in 2018 over Catalonia crisis

MADRID  Spain’s government announced late on Monday it was cutting its forecast from 2.6 per cent to 2.3 per cent economic growth next year, saying the political crisis in Catalonia was creating uncertainty.

It said in a budget plan sent to Brussels that it was down to the economic cycle as well as "a slight containment of domestic demand, resulting from the negative impact of the uncertainty associated with the current political situation in Catalonia".

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had already warned about the economic impact of the political standoff in a letter on Monday to separatist Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont.

"The latest steps taken by you and your government are causing a major divide in Catalan society, as well as enormous economic uncertainty that threatens people’s well-being," Rajoy wrote.

Representing about a fifth of Spain’s economic output, separatists argue that wealthy Catalonia pays more into the country’s coffers than it gets back and could prosper by going it alone.

But those who back unity say a split would spell economic and political disaster.

The two biggest Catalan banks are among hundreds of companies that have moved their legal headquarters to other parts of Spain, while ratings agency Standard and Poor’s has warned of a recession in the region if the crisis drags on.

The Spanish government says growing uncertainty over Catalonia, which is deeply indebted to Madrid and which cannot borrow internationally, imperils Spain’s recovery from the financial crisis. — AFP

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Death toll from Tunisia migrant boat tragedy climbs to 34

Viet Nam News

TUNIS  Tunisia’s navy has found the bodies of 26 migrants at sea a week after their boat collided with a navy vessel, bringing the death toll to 34, the defence ministry said.

On October 8, a migrant boat sank following a collision with a navy vessel off the coast of the Kerkennah islands in the Mediterranean.

At the time, the defence ministry said eight migrants drowned and 38 others were rescued, while NGOs spoke of dozens still missing.

On Sunday night, a navy search and rescue vessel spotted the remains of the migrant boat and pulled out 10 bodies, the ministry said in a statement.

The bodies of 16 other migrants were found on Monday, defence ministry spokesman Belhassen Oueslati said, putting the overall death toll so far from the collision to 34.

One of the migrants rescued after the tragedy said that 90 people had been on board, hoping to make their way to Italy.

An NGO, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, estimates the boat carried between 80 and 100 migrants.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, there has been a rise in the number of migrants trying to make the perilous sea crossing from Tunisia to Europe since summer.

Small vessels have been heading for the Italian islands of Sicily and Lampedusa.

Flavio di Giacomo, an Italian spokesman for the IOM, said earlier this month that 1,400 Tunisians had arrived in Lampedusa and western Sicily in September alone.

This is compared to 1,200 registered in Italy for all of 2016.

The FTDES said in a report last year that half of Tunisian youths from low-income areas were thinking of leaving the country, and one in three was prepared to do so clandestinely.

It blamed the situation on increasing poverty and unemployment in the North African country. — AFP

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Canada threatens to scrap arms buy as trade talks get off to rough start

WASHINGTON — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau threatened on Wednesday to cancel a major arms buy from the US over a tariffs row, as talks on a North American free trade deal got off to a rocky start.

Ottawa was set to purchase 18 new Super Hornets fighter jets from Boeing until the American aerospace firm successfully petitioned the Trump administration to impose anti-dumping penalties on its Canadian rival Bombardier over planes sold in the US market.

"I highlighted to the president how we disagreed, vehemently, with Commerce’s decision to bring in countervailing and anti-dumping duties against Bombardier," Trudeau told reporters following talks with US President Donald Trump.

Further, "attempts by Boeing to put tens of thousands of aerospace workers out of work across Canada is not something we look on positively. And I certainly mentioned that this was a block to us purchasing any -- making any military procurements from Boeing."

His comments came after Trump had previewed "a tough negotiation" over NAFTA -- a quarter-century-year-old trade pact that also includes Mexico.

Trump has made revamping the pact and reducing US trade deficits a core pillar of his election campaign, but has not set out exactly what changes he would like to make.

"If we can’t make a deal, it’ll be terminated and that will be fine," Trump said, using his typical bare-knuckle approach to top level diplomacy. "It has to be fair to both countries."

As the pair sat down, trade negotiators huddled nearby in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia for another round of talks, complicated by the aerospace spat.

The US administration, having found Bombardier guilty of receiving state subsidies, slapped a 220 per cent countervailing duty on Bombardier CS100 and CS300 aircraft imported into the United States.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer announced that talks had been extended by 48 hours and would conclude on Tuesday.

He and Mexican Economy Minister Ildefonso Guajardo Villarreal and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland are expected to make a joint appearance.

"Thus far, we have made good progress, and I look forward to several days of hard work," Lighthizer said.

The United States takes in three quarters of Canadian exports, but trade relations have been strained since Trump’s inauguration earlier this year.

’Poison pills’

With a nationalist economic agenda, Trump has denounced the agreement as a job destroyer and a "disaster" for the United States, vowing to reverse offshoring by renegotiating the treaty.

Following the most recent round in Ottawa last month, negotiators said they had made progress on subjects such as telecommunications, competition policy, digital trade, regulation and customs and trade facilitation.

Negotiators have completed talks on NAFTA provisions relating to small and medium enterprises as well as competition, Lighthizer’s office said.

The updated provisions on competition will allow for more "procedural fairness" in the enforcement of competition law, the statement said.

A major sticking point has been $64 billion US trade deficit with Mexico, which Washington wants to reduce or eliminate.

IMF Economic Counsellor Maurice Obstfeld warned Tuesday that all three NAFTA countries faced economic consequences if the outcome of the talks ended up disrupting trade relations.

Meanwhile, US Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Donohue said that several issues under discussion could scotch the entire effort.

"There are several poison pill proposals still on the table that could doom the entire deal," he said in a speech delivered in Mexico.

He cited in particular a provision to allow the agreement to expire in five years unless all parties agreed to extend it.

"We all know that certainty and stability are crucial to successful trade relationships -- and necessary to foster a pro-investment environment that drives economic growth and job creation. This clause would achieve the opposite effect."

Following his visit to Washington, Trudeau is due to travel to Mexico, where he will meet with President Enrique Pena Nieto. — AFP

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New Zealand’s ’kingmaker’ extends election limbo

WELLINGTON — New Zealanders’ agonising wait for a general election winner is set to enter a third week, as populist "kingmaker" Winston Peters on Thursday again delayed announcing who he was backing.

The South Pacific nation has been in political limbo since the September 23 polls failed to deliver a clear majority for either conservative Prime Minister Bill English or opposition leader Jacinda Ardern.

They both require Peters’ support to pass the 61 seats needed to form a government, but the 72-year-old has drawn out the negotiations as he seeks maximum advantage for his New Zealand First (NZF) party.

Peters initially gave himself until Thursday to announce his decision but reneged on the pledge earlier this week.

He then quashed hopes the issue would be settled on Friday, saying that was too early to convene the NZF board to discuss a potential deal with English or Ardern.

"It depends upon the logistical availability of the board, which could be Saturday, Sunday or Monday," he told reporters in Wellington.

"It is a priority (but) people do have to come from all over the country."

It is the third time Peters, best known as an anti-immigration campaigner, has found himself in the role of kingmaker under New Zealand’s proportional voting system.

He opted for National in 1996 in return for being made deputy prime minister and backed Labour in 2005 after it agreed to make him foreign minister. — AFP

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Landslide buries 18 in Hòa Bình

Viet Nam News

HÒA BÌNH — At least 18 people were found buried early on Thursday morning after a landslide hit the northern mountainous Hòa Bình Province’s Phú Cường Commune.

The landslide occurred when the victims were sleeping.

The local rescue team found nine bodies, and is working hard to locate more victims but the rescue activities are proving difficult due to soil and rocks, triggered by the landslide and heavy rains, at the scene.

Head of the provincial Transport Department, Bùi Văn Thắng, said all local roads were inundated following heavy rains for several days. The section of National Highway 6 running through the province was also flooded by rainwater, and vehicle movement was slow.

“The risk of a landslide along this section is very high,” Thắng said.

In a related movement, statistics from the local administration revealed that by 7am on Thursday, 17 people were killed, 13 were missing and 9 were injured following heavy rains caused by a tropical low-pressure system in the province.

Heavy rains also damaged over 1,000 houses and destroyed more than 4,000ha of crop.

Heavy rains continue, flood over highest in 3 decades

The National Centre for Hydro-meteorological Forecasting on Thursday morning said heavy rains are predicted to continue hitting the provinces of Thanh Hóa, Nghệ An and Hà Tĩnh until Friday morning.

In the meantime, the flood on Hoàng Long River in northern Ninh Bình Province reached 5.53 metres at 6am on Thursday, higher than the river’s historic flood in 1985, the centre said. The water level of Hồng (Red) River’s downstream was also rapidly rising.

The centre warned that inundation would continue hitting Thanh Hóa Province because floods were on the horizon for the three local rivers of Bưởi, Chu and Mã.

Districts of Mường Lát, Thạch Thành, Quan Hóa and Quan Sơn, as well as Lang Chánh, Bá Thước, Cẩm Thủy and Thường Xuân, in addition to Yên Định, and Thọ Xuân were put on high alert, the centre said.

In a related movement, a new tropical low-pressure system, which was predicted to gain strength to form as a tropical storm, was heading towards the East Sea.

By 7am on Thursday, the tropical low-pressure system was at 420km to the east of the Philippines’ Luzon Island.  It was moving west-northwest at 25km. — VNS

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S. Korea to create environment for denuclearisation talks

SEOUL — South Korea will accelerate its "leading" efforts to create an environment for the resumption of talks aimed at denuclearising North Korea, the country’s top diplomat said on Thursday.

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said that her ministry will work hard to encourage China and Russia to convince North Korea to the negotiating table.

"We will beef up our leading role to generate an environment in which denuclearisation talks can resume," Kang told lawmakers during a parliamentary audit. "In this process, we will actively push to induce the influence that China and Russia have over the North."

Her renewed emphasis on talks with the North came despite rising tensions prompted by the North’s continued provocations and a recent war of words between the leaders of the North and the US.

South Korea has been saying that it will seek to resolve the North’s nuclear issue not just through sanctions and pressure but also through diplomatic efforts, including direct talks.

In a speech in Berlin in July, President Moon Jae-in underlined the importance of dialogue to address the North’s nuclear issue and said that his government will work to establish a permanent peace regime on the peninsula.

Kang vowed to keep the "moment" strong for the president’s policy direction on the North and continue the efforts to establish a peace regime here in tandem with progress in denuclearisation efforts. — YONHAP

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Trump meets advisers to discuss N Korea options: statement

WASHINGTON - US President Donald Trump on Tuesday discussed "a range of options" with his national security team to respond to North Korea’s recent missile and nuclear tests, his office said. The briefing by his defense secretary James Mattis and top military officer General Joseph Dunford "focused on a range of options to respond to any form of North Korean aggression or, if necessary, to prevent North Korea from threatening the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons," according to a brief statement.

Trump meets advisers to discuss N Korea options: statement

Macron urges Merkel to fight for EU revival

FRANKFURT — French President Emmanuel Macron has pleaded his case for ambitious European reforms, appealing to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to join forces with him and enter the debate.

Speaking in Frankfurt on Tuesday, where he opened the German city’s annual book fair alongside Merkel, Macron also stressed the importance of culture in the "redefining" of Europe.

"There is no Europe without culture," he told the audience, highlighting the crucial role language, educational exchanges and the arts have to play in combatting "the languor" gripping the continent.

Merkel for her part praised the "close friendship and solidarity" between the neighbours.

"History shows that in order to further develop Europe, we need impulses from Germany and France," she said.

But she stayed vague on how far she backed her French counterpart’s plans for an overhaul of the European project.

Macron’s grand vision

In an earlier address to university students in the western German city, Macron reiterated his desire for deeper eurozone integration, including his more contentious calls for a common budget and finance minister.

"If we are ready for common policies on security, digital infrastructure, energy, migration, the fight against terrorism, then who can explain to me why we can’t have a common eurozone budget?" Macron said.

He added that he believed European leaders had "one year" to lay out their vision of the bloc’s future in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections.

"I think we need to start the debate, we have a year to clarify and draw up a common roadmap.

"This is what I would like to come and do in Germany on several occasions and what I invite the chancellor to come to France and do as well," Macron said.

Merkel has so far responded cautiously to Macron’s grand vision for a more closely integrated Europe, which he first outlined in a landmark speech last month at the Sorbonne university in Paris.

The issue of a common eurozone budget is especially controversial in Germany, the biggest EU economy, which fears it will lead to a pooling of national debt with Berlin picking up the tab for poorer member states.

’No pooling of national debt’

In an interview set to appear in German media on Wednesday, Merkel said again she needed more time to study his proposals and reiterated Germany’s stance on the debt issue.

"With me, there will be no pooling of national debt," she told the RND regional media group.

Macron was in Germany to formally inaugurate the October 11-15 Frankfurt Book Fair, where more than 7,000 exhibitors from over 100 countries are expected and France is this year’s guest of honour.

French literary stars like novelist Michel Houellebecq and Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio will join peers like Margaret Atwood and Dan Brown to add glamour to the event.

The fair dates back to the Middle Ages, when the Gutenberg printing press was invented in nearby Mainz.

Merkel and Macron symbolically printed out the first page of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on a replica of the Gutenberg press late Tuesday, after touring the French pavillon.

’Learn three, four languages’

The fair’s director Juergen Boos said the leaders’ joint opening of the literature extravaganza showed their commitment to "a strong, unified Europe".

"Culture is the right approach to strengthen the European project, it’s easier than starting with the economy," Boos said.

Macron told the book fair audience he wanted to encourage Europe’s young people to speak at least two languages -- "or even three or four" -- and see the Erasmus exchange programme expanded so that every student could spend "six months in another European country".

Merkel praised her French counterpart’s emphasis on the longstanding bonds between their countries, saying European leaders "have to do more" to teach young people about the value of culture and literature.

Merkel’s non-committal stance on Macron’s pitch for closer eurozone cooperation comes as the chancellor is heading into thorny coalition talks with two smaller parties after winning a difficult victory in elections last month.

One of the potential partners is the liberal and pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), which views Macron’s proposals sceptically and opposes any idea of German taxpayers’ money flowing to weaker EU economies. — AFP

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Erdogan steps up US row with ambassador boycott

Viet Nam News

ISTANBUL — President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed on Tuesday that Turkish officials will boycott the US ambassador, deepening one of the worst rifts in decades between the NATO allies.

Erdogan said Turkey no longer regarded outgoing envoy John Bass as the US representative to Turkey after American missions in the country stopped issuing visas.

The dispute erupted last week when Turkey arrested a Turkish employee of the American consulate on suspicion of links to the group blamed for last year’s failed coup.

In response, the United States stopped issuing visitor visas from its missions in Turkey, prompting Turkish missions to hit back with a tit-for-tat step of their own.

"We have not agreed and are not agreeing to this ambassador making farewell visits with ministers, the parliament speaker and myself," Erdogan said.

"We do not see him as the representative of the United States in Turkey," he added, speaking at a news conference with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade.

Bass is shortly to leave Turkey after being named the US envoy to Afghanistan and it is traditional for outgoing envoys to make valedictory visits to top officials.

And, although Bass is in Turkey for only a few more days, it is unprecedented in the history of Turkish-US relations for Ankara to no longer recognise Washington’s ambassador.

’Agents in consulate’

Erdogan said the arrest of the consulate staffer, based on evidence found by the police, shows "something is going on at the Istanbul consulate".

"The US should evaluate one thing: how did those agents leak into the consulate?" Erdogan said.

Some Turkish officials have long alleged a US hand in the coup attempt on July 15 last year, which Ankara blames on the US-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen.

Washington has dismissed claims it was involved as a ludicrous conspiracy theory, and on Tuesday it said it has seen no evidence linking its Turkish employees to a plot.

"These actions were are deeply disturbing to us," State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said in Washington, urging Turkey to allow the detained men access to lawyers.

"We have not seen any evidence that indicates that our staff members were involved in what the government is accusing them of doing," she said.

On Monday, Turkish prosecutors summoned another local employee working at the American consulate in Istanbul, the Anadolu news agency said.

The man is reportedly in hiding at the consulate but the Turkish authorities on Monday detained his wife and his son, and on Tuesday detained his daughter.

In March, a Turkish employee at the US consulate in the southern city of Adana was arrested on charges of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

’Pivot away from the West’

Turkish officials had expressed hope of a new page in Ankara-Washington relations under President Donald Trump after bickering in the last months of Barack Obama’s term.

So far, Erdogan has been careful not to take aim at Trump during the dispute, putting the blame squarely on Bass.

He said that if the order to suspend visa issuance came from Bass, then the US administration "should not keep him here one more minute".

"They need to ask him, How can you break relations between the United States and Turkey, who gave you this authority?" he demanded.

But Nauert responded that Bass had been operating with the full authority of the US government.

"He’s one of the best ambassadors that we have out there. Proud to have him serving in Turkey and looking forward to having him in his next post," she said.

"This was coordinated with the State Department. It was coordinated with the White House and coordinated with the NSC," she said, referring to the National Security Council.

Turkish pro-government media have rounded on the United States, with the Yeni Safak daily describing the US as "not an ally but an enemy".

Ties have also frayed over the refusal of the United States to extradite Gulen, and its support for Kurdish militias in Syria.

Meanwhile, American pastor Andrew Brunson, who ran a church in the western city of Izmir, has been held since October 2016 on charges of being a member of Gulen’s group.

Erdogan suggested last month Turkey could release him in exchange for Gulen but the US, which treats extraditions as a judicial matter, has shown no interest in the idea.

Ankara is also angry over the US arrest of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, deputy chief executive at state lender Halkbank, and Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab. — AFP

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15 dead as wildfires torch California wine country

Viet Nam News

SANTA ROSA — Firefighters battled wildfires in California’s wine region on Tuesday as the death toll rose to 15 and thousands were left homeless in neighbourhoods reduced to ashes.

"The homes are gone, they are like dust," said Jack Dixon, a personal trainer who lives in Santa Rosa, a city of 175,000 in Sonoma County. "It is just like we were nuked."

Dixon said that his own neighbourhood was spared when the fire "miraculously" changed direction but many others were not so fortunate.

"I am surrounded by devastation and feel lucky it didn’t happen to me," Dixon said.

US President Donald Trump declared a major disaster in California, freeing up federal funding and resources to help fight the 17 large wildfires in the western state.

Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in eight counties -- including wine-producing Napa and Sonoma -- and said thousands of firefighters had been deployed to fight the blazes.

Nine deaths were reported in Sonoma County, three in Mendocino County, two in Napa County and one in Yuba County and the governor said "emergency responders anticipate the number of fatalities could grow."

Among the dead in Napa were a couple aged 99 and 100 years old who had been married for 75 years, KTVU-TV said. They were unable to evacuate their home in time.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department said on its Facebook page it had received reports of 200 missing people.

Forty-five had been located and the department said it was confident that many of the rest would be found safe.

About 25,000 people have been evacuated in Sonoma County alone, the department said, and 5,000 have sought refuge in shelters.

The fires have torched more than 115,000 acres (46,500 hectares) and destroyed over 2,000 homes and businesses, according to the authorities.

Winds have weakened

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) said 17 large fires were continuing to burn on Tuesday.

"The winds that fanned these fires Sunday night and Monday morning have decreased significantly, but local winds and dry conditions continue to pose a challenge," Cal Fire said.

"With the decrease in the winds combined with cooler weather, firefighters made good progress overnight," it added.

Governor Brown said the "devastation and disruption caused by these fires is extraordinary.

"Thousands have been made homeless".

Much of the worst damage was in Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County, and could be seen from US Route 101, the north-south highway which runs from California through Oregon to Washington state.

The Sonoma County Hilton perched on a hill overlooking 101 was a smoldering ruin of charred wood and twisted metal, as was the nearby Fountaingrove Inn.

An enormous K-Mart store was entirely destroyed with only a couple of blackened walls still standing.

Among the wineries which reportedly suffered damage were William Hill Estate Winery in Napa, Signorello Vineyards, Stags’ Leap and Chimney Rock.

Maureen Fairchild, a nurse, was working at a hospital in Marin County where some of the evacuees were brought.

"I was working in a memory-impaired unit," Fairchild said. "We had all these people who were already confused and now they were in an unfamiliar place with all this frenzy going on around them."

Kris Hammar, who lives in Santa Rosa on the edge of a mandatory evacuation zone, had not yet evacuated but was monitoring maps, wind direction, and fire updates to see if she and her family should bolt.

"The fire is close, very close," Hammer said. "Everything is in the car, and we are checking constantly to see if anything has changed."

’Boom, boom, boom’

Troy Newton, 46, a Sonoma County sheriff’s detective, was among those who fled Santa Rosa.

Newton told The Los Angeles Times he was returning home when he saw a "growing red snake" of fire.

"I ran into my house and told my wife to get our four-year-old boy ready to leave," Newton said, before raising the alarm for around 40 neighbours.

"It was boom, boom, boom. Ring the door bell. Boom, boom -- until someone inside got the message," he said.

Pacific Gas & Electric said more than 196,000 customers had initially lost electricity although half had had their power restored.

Governor Brown in April declared the official end of the state’s drought that lasted more than five years.

But California is still dealing with the Santa Ana winds, a meteorological phenomenon which brings dry winds down from the high mountains east of the coastal areas -- a recipe for perfect wildfire conditions.

Forest fires are common in the western United States during dry, hot summer months.

Last month, a massive fire described as the biggest in the history of Los Angeles forced hundreds to evacuate their homes. — AFP

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Growth, policy normalisation in focus at G-20 finance chiefs’ meeting

TOKYO — Group of 20 finance chiefs are expected to gather this week to examine the strength of global economic growth and potential risks to financial markets as major US and European central banks move toward monetary policy normalisation.

The multilateral forum will give Japan, bracing for a general election on October 22, an opportunity to explain its stance on fiscal rehabilitation after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe effectively gave up the country’s goal of achieving a primary balance surplus by fiscal 2020, an international commitment.

North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests in defiance of international pressure could also be discussed at the two-day meeting in Washington from Thursday.

"The normalisation of monetary policy will be the primary focus of attention," said Yuji Kameoka, chief foreign exchange analyst at Daiwa Securities Co.

With economic recovery gaining traction and asset prices surging, the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank are expected to scale back monetary support after years of providing liquidity to financial markets.

But the Bank of Japan -- holding some 40 per cent of outstanding Japanese government bonds -- is an exception as its 2 per cent inflation target is still far off despite what is likely to be the second-longest postwar economic expansion phase in the country.

One challenge facing the G-20 is how to keep the growth momentum going for the world economy while avoiding a rapid tightening of loose monetary policy implemented in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis as it could rattle financial markets by triggering an outflow of funds from emerging and developing economies.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde said in a recent speech that monetary policy should continue to support the global economy as inflation remains low.

She also urged central banks to communicate their plans clearly and conduct monetary policy normalisation smoothly. "This will help avoid market turbulence and a sudden tightening of financial conditions that could derail the recovery," Lagarde said.

The G-20 meeting will be held on the sidelines of annual gatherings by the IMF and World Bank.

Masatsugu Asakawa, vice finance minister for international affairs, and BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda will represent the Japanese side. Finance Minister Taro Aso will skip the meeting, although he is scheduled to visit Washington for the second round of US-Japan economic dialogue on October 16.

Since US President Donald Trump took office with his "America First" agenda, the G-20 has increasingly faced a test of unity. Although G-20 leaders managed to uphold their commitment to fighting protectionism at their summit in the German port city of Hamburg in July, they failed to bridge differences over climate change.

The finance chiefs are not expected to issue a joint statement at the end of the forthcoming talks, as it is only three months ago that their leaders renewed their pledge to use all policy tools -- monetary, fiscal and structural -- to make global economic growth strong, balanced and inclusive.

On currency policy, Trump raised the issue of the US dollar getting strong earlier this year, but analysts largely believe the recent rise of the currency should not be of concern since it has been accompanied by robust economic data and hopes for US tax cuts.

In a report released ahead of the G-20 gathering, the IMF called for countries with high public debt such as the United States and Japan to have "more ambitious" fiscal consolidation plans over the medium-term.

"If the United States goes ahead with tax cuts with a widening budget deficit, this will lead to higher interest rates and buying of the dollar on the assumption that the economy is in good shape," Kameoka said.

Japan, for its part, is in dire financial straits, with its debt twice the size of its economy.

The delay in hitting the fiscal restoration goal comes as Abe dissolved the House of Representatives to seek a fresh mandate for his plan to expand free education by changing how revenue from a planned consumption tax hike in 2019 to 10 per cent will be used.

The BOJ’s massive holding of government bonds has enabled Japan to curb its debt-servicing costs that now account for a quarter of the fiscal 2017 state budget.

But fiscal rehabilitation could become all the more difficult as the Fed unwinds its balance sheet and carries out rate hikes, raising the bar for the BOJ to guide Japan’s long-term interest rates near zero, analysts said.

The G-20 groups Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the United States and the European Union. — KYODO

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